by John Grooms
I kind of feel sorry for the county commissioners as they start their three-day conference to set goals and craft a budget for 2011-2012. Vital budget numbers they need from Raleigh arent showing up anytime soon, and since the state provides large parts of the money for county programs including Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools the commissioners are essentially dancing in the dark and doing a lot of guessing. The county is charged with running or overseeing a plethora of programs, nearly all of which are presumably facing funding cuts. The countys biggest expense, by far, however, is the public school system, so I want to focus on that for this blog post.
Politicians have myriad ways to set priorities, but there comes a time and we are fully into it now when the long-term good of the community has to be made the top priority, no matter the politics involved. This has been written about here and elsewhere a thousand times, but it bears repeating: No self-respecting community, i.e., no community that wants to continue to be viable over time, can let its public schools go to hell. Unfortunately, that will be the result in Mecklenburg if the county accepts the kinds of cuts Supt. Gorman is talking about, in anticipation of major funding cuts from Raleigh. There is only so much you can cut, re-arrange, trim, consolidate or reconfigure before youre hacking away at the heart of the system.
Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts has spoken lately about wanting to do everything possible to save the schools from deteriorating, and has been launching trial balloons for keeping increased taxation on the table. I commend her for facing the facts about the depth of the schools woes, and for facing the potential wrath of voters.
We live in an odd time. Americas public schools are not performing up to par, and were falling farther behind other industrialized nations. At the same time, though, the rhetoric of conservatives has created a political atmosphere in which it is very hard to propose any tax increase. Which would be fine if we werent talking about the most important societal institution we support with taxes.
The Commissions conference this week wont see much progress toward agreement on tax rates. But its essential that the Commission keep an open mind on the subject, that both parties forego the usual grandstanding, and agree that saving the schools from drastic, critical cuts is a top priority. While theyre doing that, they need to consider different ways to raise the funding necessary to keep our schools up to par. One way is to cut judiciously by eliminating unnecessary administrative positions, putting a moratorium on expensive outside consultants, re-configuring bus routes, getting rid of that stupid CMS television channel, and other ways. One way NOT to cut funds is what the school board did yesterday, which is to eliminate 134 teachers assigned to help impoverished students. The not-so-bright idea of cutting the Bright Beginnings program also needs to be thrown in the wastebasket.
As weve written time and again, there also needs to be a serious behind-the-scenes campaign to convince the citys corporate heavy hitters to shell out money for the schools. And heres one more idea that should be a no-brainer: a tax on each student who attends a private school rather than CMS. While the Commission is meeting, and afterward, let them know that schools are essential and absolutely have to be protected.